Review by Brett Holman.
Even though the age of airships has long passed, they still exert an unparalleled grip on the popular imagination, appearing in science fiction as an easily-understood signifier of history taking a wrong turn somewhere, or in tech media as a temptingly slow-but-luxurious form of air travel that always seems just out of reach. Even when they were still a viable form of transportation, though, airships were never merely prosaic. In World War I, when both the German army and navy used Zeppelins for long-range reconnaissance and bombing, they were seized upon by propagandists on both sides as symbols to be either used or defused. David Marks has previously written about the British side of this visual war in his excellent Let the Zeppelins Come; in The Zeppelin Offensive he turns to the German side. In both cases, Marks draws on his own extensive collection of contemporary postcards, which during the war were printed and posted in their millions, often with patriotic or satiric images of Zeppelins. These images are the stars of The Zeppelin Offensive. Nearly every page features a beautiful reproduction of a postcard, sometimes two, often in colour and always crystal clear, usually German, of course, but sometimes British or French. The book is almost worth the price for these images alone
Marks does more than simply catalogue postcards, however. He shows the surprising variety of ways in which Zeppelins were used in postcards as propaganda (nearly always of an unofficial kind). Zeppelins were not just shown, as might be expected, dropping bombs on British (or French, or Belgian) cities (though the degree to which clearly civilian targets, as distinct from legally less dubious military ones, are shown going up in flames is a little surprising). They were also frequently shown as a powerful way to counteract Britain’s naval dominance – perhaps my favourite postcard in the book is one which shows a comically-beleaguered John Bull, clutching his toy dreadnought protectively against the Zeppelins and U-boats swarming around him. One postcard shows toy Zeppelins being used by children in a ‘little air war’ which, as Marks notes ‘increased the pressure on children to be patriotic and actively support the war effort’ – which in turn, it could be added, might be expected to have the same effect on the grown-ups around them. The scatological theme running through a number of a postcards highlights a faith in the Zeppelin’s psychological effects on the enemy, though no doubt it also reflects, as Marks suggests, ‘the German obsession with toilet humour’ (sex would be the equivalent British obsession, judging from the large number of mildly risqué postcards included in the earlier Let the Zeppelins Come). While some of the postcards are relatively crude in artistic terms and were clearly dashed off quickly to meet a topical need, many are visually striking, such as the Valkyrie overseeing a fleet of Zeppelins setting out across the North Sea (one of many featuring the slogan Gott strafe England, or ‘God punish England’). The final chapter of The Zeppelin Offensive covers the eclipse of the airships from 1916 as British air defences got the better of them, and postcard publishers turned their attention to fighter aces and U-boat captains.
The history of satirical cartoons is an area of academic study which has come into its own over the past couple of decades: see, for example, Richard Scully’s British Images of Germany: Admiration, Antagonism & Ambivalence, 1860–1914. Marks has evidently carried out considerable research into his postcards as well as their artists and publishers, which are all identified (where known) in captions and the index. He also provides a useful, if brief, bibliography. The accompanying text briskly but insightfully sets out important context for the postcards – for example, the German sense of encirclement by its enemies which was used to justify pre-emptive attacks, or the reason why British soldiers were routinely shown in old-fashioned Victorian uniforms. Unfortunately, few of the postcards are given a date, which limits this book’s usefulness to scholars. Still, The Zeppelin Offensive is clearly aimed at a popular audience, not an academic one, and as such it hits the mark admirably, and very enjoyably.
In operational terms, as Marks notes, Zeppelins were much more effective in the naval reconnaissance role, and this would have been a much better use for them than brutal and ultimately fruitless strategic bombing. But that neglects their psychological value to the German people as one of the few ways to carry the war to ‘England’. Even when they were carrying out eminently physical tasks like killing enemy civilians, it was in the realm of the imagination that Zeppelins remained the supreme weapon.